France’s own kilt-maker

A large house in a French village hides a surprising business: hand-made Scottish kilts.

28 August 2019
Kilt-makers Susan and Gary McDonald at their Charente home
By Brian McCulloch

The kilts, made with eight yards of tartan, are stitched by Gary McDonald, who works between calls to action from the pompiers in the Charente village of Saint-Claud.

The 60-year-old learned the business when he and his wife Susan realised that age meant their careers as professional dancers were slowing down.

“I always love working with my hands,” he said.

“Growing up, kilts were part of my everyday life, but I did not think of making them until I started making more and more of the costumes for our dance troupe.

It might not have been too macho, but you can think of the sewing machine as a power tool.”

Each kilt takes around 25 hours of hand-stitching, but it takes longer than that to determine what the customer wants.

“There are lots of details you can get with hand-stitched kilts, such as whether the pattern is repeated horizontally or vertically in each pleat or not, for example,” said Gary. “By the time people commit to a hand-stitched kilt, they often have a good idea of what they want, but you still have to go through with them what is on offer.”

The kilts sell for €525. Much of the skill is fitting them around the back with stiffening material, which is then included in a cotton belt lining.

One of Mr McDonald’s first summer jobs as a 17-year-old was as a salesman in a kilt outfitters. 

He went to work on the bus every day wearing one and says: “They were normal to me. I was a Scout and a kilt was part of the uniform, so working in the shop and being able to buy a decent kilt as part of the job was great.”

Mrs McDonald works as a French/English translator.

She hankered after living in France, and the couple decided to give it a go.

“There is a flight from Edin-burgh to Poitiers, which is why we started up there, but we were looking in the Charente because that’s where there were houses for sale at the time, so we decided to rent for a year while we looked,” she said.

Mr McDonald had been a volunteer fireman in Scotland.

He mentioned this to the mayor at a New Year voeux ceremony, and was immediately introduced to the fire chief.

“Months later, I got a call asking if I was interested in visiting the local caserne. We went, and an hour and a half later, I was a pompier,” he said.

The rented house was too far from the caserne for call-outs, so they started looking closer to the village – and found their house, just off the main square.

“And that is how a maker of Scottish kilts set up his business in the Charente,” he said.

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